Dealing With the Tough Stuff

Today was the final session of the five-session series on Discerning My Place in the World that I offered this fall at the University of St. Thomas.  Having looked in our prior sessions at various considerations relevant in discerning our vocation and making decisions in a prayerful way, free from disordered attachments, I decided to end the series by considering the question: What happens when things don’t go the way I thought they would?  By that I mean either that I engaged in a process of discernment that led me to think X (whatever X is) would be the best for me and either (a) I get X and it turns out it is not the right place for me or (b) I don’t to do X.

The reality is that any combination of external and internal factors may contribute to things not going the way we thought they would.  Perhaps I’m not as good as something as I thought I’d be.  Or the job I discerned was the best for me just doesn’t bring me the joy I expected.  In either of those two cases it may be that there was something faulty about my discernment.  The truth is that I can discern carefully, but still make the decision that is not the best one.  Sometimes we miss something.

Even if there is no fault in my discernment process, things happen that are out of our control.  A company that thought a job was available decides not to hire after you decided you would accept their offer.  I get every signal from the people interviewing me that the job is mine, but then someone else comes along that an employer thinks would be a better fit than I would be.  A spouse unexpectedly needs to move and so I can’t stay in a position I wanted to be in.   An illness means I can’t perform something I thought I could.

In my talk, I addressed three of the things one might grapple with in such a situation: disappointment and dejection, loss of confidence, and envy.  Although I typically record my talks during programs like this, I didn’t record this one because I wanted it to be more participatory, inviting the participants to share about their own experiences.  We had a good discussion that harkened back to the opening session of the series about the need to keep clear the distinction between ends and means and to remember that it is God’s plan we are about, not our own.

I am grateful to those who participated in this program.  For those interested who were not able to be with us, you can scroll back for the podcasts and prayer material for the earlier sessions of the series.


Francis and Poverty

Today we celebrate the feast of a saint close to my heart: Francis of Assisi.  We can describe Francis in many ways, but one of the significant element in his spirituality (like that of my friend Vincent dePaul) was a life of poverty and concern for the marginalized.

Francis looked at the Gospels and heard Jesus say, “if you wish to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions, and give to the poor…and come, follow me”.  And  “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff nor knapsack, shoes nor money.”  And “If any will come after me, let them renounce self, take up their cross and follow me.”

Francis read heard Jesus say such words and he took them seriously.  For Francis, poverty was a way both of imitating Christ and of growing in love for his brothers.  It was also a way of avoiding the temptation to sin that exists when one has property.  In the words of Sister Ilia Delio

Just as Francis realized that God humbly bends over in love to embrace us in Jesus Christ, so too he realized that the suffering of humanity and all creation could only be lifted up through solidarity in love.  Francis lived a poor, itinerant life but he wrote very little on poverty. What was important to him was to live—not without possessions—but without possessing (sine proprio). He was keenly aware of the human person as weak and fragile and thus prone to greed, selfishness and power. To be poor is to live without possessing anything that could prevent true human relatedness as a brother.

In a similar vein,  Steven Clissold writes:

Francis passionately believed that the love of material possessions lay at the root of society’s ills and of man’s estrangement from his maker.  Property implied the needs for arms with which to defend it, and led to the struggle for power and prestige and to the chronic warfare which was the scourge of his times.

Francis felt deep compassion for the poor and the suffering.  One of his biographers writes that he would grieve over those who were poorer than himself and that from a young age he felt a compassion for those less fortunate than himself.

On this day on which we celebrate Francis, we might ask ourselves about our own compassion for the poor and suffering.  Do we, as Francis, grieve over those poorer than ourselves.

How I Approach Decisions

Today was the fourth session of the five-week series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas this fall on Discerning My Place in the World.  In the first session of the series we focused first on God’s invitation to each of us to co-labor with him in the building of Kingdom; on the second, with getting in touch with our deepest desires; and in the third session identifying our gifts.   The theme for today’s session was How I Approach Decisions.

The talk I gave drew from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a wonderful tool for discernment.  I spoke about the context in which we make our decisions, and then shared some tools from the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian Spirituality that help us discern how to use our gifts to build God’s kingdom.  After my talk, we had a good discussion about letting go of roads not taken and how we receive confirmation of our choices.

You can access a recording of my talk at today’s session here or stream it from the icon below.  (The podcast runs for 27:20.) You can find the prayer material I distributed today here.

Cultivating a Mystical Life

I have appreciated the writing of Carl McColman, so was happy when my friend Richard forwarded to me a post written by McColman about a talk he recently gave in Atlanta.  In the post, he shared his response to a question asked by an audience member about “best practices” for those who want to develop a more mystical spirituality.  His answer is well worth reading in its entirety (which you can do here), but I particularly appreciated McColman’s summary list of “ingredients for a truly mystical life.”  Here is the list and an excerpt of what he said about each item.  You might consider what role each of these has (or could be developed) in your own life.

  • Silence — silence is the foundation of mysticism. We need meaningful amounts of attentive silence, each and every day. …[T]hat’s a necessary first step to finding to limitless silence that expands beyond the “noise” of our thoughts, imaginations and feelings.
  • Liturgy — we need a structured form of daily prayer. … But not everyone needs a daily liturgy as complex as what you’ll find in a monastery. There are other ways to become established in regular prayer. What’s important is that we pray, and that we pray every day. And a daily liturgy, of some form, is an essential tool for keeping such daily prayer alive and real, especially over the long haul.
  • Embodiment — Prayer and silence can sometimes leave us stuck in our heads. The mystical life is a full-bodied life, which pays attention to labor, to rest, to health and even to appropriate ways in which we discipline ourselves (for example, exercising regularly or going on a diet)…. Therefore, our spirituality needs to have a material as well as a psychological component.
  • Community — Christianity is not a do-it-yourself spirituality; neither is Christian mysticism. We need each other. We need to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we even need to work on loving our enemies. Mysticism often appeals to introverts (I’m one!), and so this is sometimes the hardest part of the spiritual life for us. But Jesus is clear: he said where two or three (or more) are gathered, he is present. Of course he is present with us individually, too. But his point is that we should not neglect intimacy with God found through community.
  • Justice — Again, Jesus is clear. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Feed my sheep.” “Feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, set the prisoners free.” Christianity is clear in its commitment not only to heaven-after-death, but to working for the reign of God (which is to say, the heart of love) here in the present.
  • Interspirituality — not everyone is called to do interfaith dialogue or interspiritual work in a formal way. But we are all called to be  hospitable toward others, and especially in this day and age, “others” includes those who do not share our faith. ..
  • Humility — …Authentic mystical experience tends to increase humility rather than pride: the “experiencer” is often left with a profound sense of unworthiness after having encountered such vast love. Many of us, meanwhile, are called to be mystics of unknowing, where our is faith shaped not by extraordinary experience but by deep faith and lively trust. No matter what our relationship with God may look like, we are all called to walk humbly with God.


Uniting Prayer and Action

Today is the celebration of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a saint who occupies a special place in my heart.

My shorthand description for people who know nothing of this wonderful saint is that Vincent really got what Jesus was saying in the judgment passage in Matthew 25. You know the passage – the one where Jesus explains how the sheep and goats will be separated. Vincent took to his heart the message of this passage better than anyone else I can think of (although some of my Vincentian brothers come close).

Vincent looked at the faces of the poor and the marginalized and what he saw was the face of Christ. He once observed, “We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.”

Just as the Ignatian spirituality that is so close to my heart, Vincent’s heritage is a spirituality committed to uniting contemplation with action.  Let me share words I’ve shared here before on the relationship between prayer and action, words  written by Robert Maloney, C.M., a former Superior General of the Vincentians:

Divorced from action, prayer can turn escapist. It can lose itself in fantasy. It can create illusions of holiness. Conversely, service divorced from prayer can become shallow. It can have a “driven” quality to it. It can become an addiction, an intoxicating lure. It can so dominate a person’s psychology that his or her sense of worth depends on being busy.

An apostolic spirituality is at its best when it holds prayer and action in tension with one another. The person who loves God “with the sweat of his brow and the strength of his arms” knows how to distinguish between beautiful theoretical thoughts about an abstract God and real personal contact with the living Lord contemplated and served in his suffering people.

Fr. Maloney’s words are a good reminder to all of us on this feast day of Vincent.

Wishing all of my friends in the worldwide Vincentian family a blessed feast day.

What Are My Gifts?

Today was the third session of the five-week series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas this fall on Discerning My Place in the World.  In the first two sessions of the series, we focused first on God’s invitation to each of us to co-labor with him in the building of Kingdom, and then on getting in touch with our deepest desires (the place where our desire and God’s desire for us is the same.  The theme for today’s session was What Are My Gifts?

I spend some time talking about why this is such an important question in discerning vocation, the role of humility, and on how we might explore answering the question.  The participants then spent some time in silent reflection, after which we had a good discussion surrounding questions relating to why we have difficulty acknowledging and using some of the gifts we have been given.

You can access a recording of my talk at today’s session here or stream it from the icon below.  You can find the prayer material I distributed today here.

“What are We To Do About All This?”

On this Saturday, September 23, Fr. Stanley Rother will become the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified.  I wrote once before about Rother, the subject of a wonderful book by my even-more-wonderful friend, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, titled The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.

Rother ministered to the poor in Guatamala at an incredibly difficult time of armed internal conflict in that country.  Among other tasks, Rother was faced with searching for the bodies of the desaparecidos – people who “went missing” by government and military action.

In a recent article for America Magazine,  Scaperlanda writes

“And what do we do about all this?” wrote Father Rother to a friend. “What can we do but do our work, keep our heads down, preach the Gospel of love and nonviolence.” To use Pope Francis’ image, Father Rother was a shepherd who smelled like his sheep.

Paraphrasing the words St. Paul used in Acts 13:22 to recall God’s reason for favoring King David, it is clear that Christ found in Rother “a man after his own heart,” one “who did all that was asked of him”—to the point of martyrdom.

As he wrote at the end of his final Christmas letter from the mission to his church back in Oklahoma in 1980, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

On July 28, 1981, Father Stanley Rother, the servant of love, was murdered in the parish rectory, martyred for the Gospel and for his sheep.

I will be at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh from Thursday night through Sunday, giving a preached Ignatian retreat for women.  We will recall Fr. Stanley’s model of discipleship and pray for those to whom he ministered.